For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
Outside, on Shaftesbury High Street, waits a glamorous pair of old rivals from Italy’s industrial north.
In an apparent air of frosty impatience, both the 1960 Lancia Flaminia 2.5 Convertible and ’64 Alfa Romeo 2600 Spider have come wearing similar outfits – low slung, off-thes-houlder numbers from Carrozzeria Touring.
When it comes to English rain dances, little beats the efficacy of two classic Italian soft-tops, so we wait for the forecast dryness with late-morning coffee substituting for lunch.
Frowns, strained glances and silent prayers are cast to the heavens, all pleading that the sunshine hasn’t forgotten its appointed shift. Time ticks on, rain continues and hopes are in danger of being washed away, lumbering us with something as gloomy as a wet weekend with Tony Hancock.
The weatherman, though, doesn’t disappoint.
As soon as the last raindrop splashes aground, we hit the roads that weave, dive and climb up over the Dorset border into Wiltshire.
At the outset we’re stalked by scudding blackness worthy of Mordor, but the skyborne threat is eventually outrun.
The sun, rolling hills and seductive views do their best to allude to Shelley’s ‘paradise of exiles’, but the smells and sounds – particularly the lack of maniacally driven Piaggio Apes – confirm that we’re not in Italy.
We all have our favourite marques. Particularly when they’ve contributed towards the construction of our petrolhead belief system – as Alfa Romeo has with yours truly.
So this gleaming Spider – one of just 112 right-handers built – has little trouble attracting my attention as quickly as something shiny lures a magpie.
Yet in contrast to this forging modernism was the reappearance of an engine format strongly associated with the marque’s past life of concentrated prestige.
Here was a 145bhp twin-cam straight-six with aluminium block and head, bearing two inclined valves per hemispherical combustion chamber, and fed by a trio of Solex 44 PHH carburettors.
Developed under engineering chief Orazio Satta, the mechanical specification of the 2600 Spider was still modern enough to raise the odd British eyebrow.
It featured coil springs all-round, telescopic dampers and servo-assisted disc brakes, plus a manual five-speed gearbox.
All that was wrapped in a 2+2 monocoque body – styled by Touring’s Carlo Anderloni and Federico Formenti – that was really just a continuation of the 1958 Tipo 102 2000 Spider.
The Alfa cannot be heckled for aesthetic repetition when it is such an elegant and charismatic shape.
Subtly sensuous and flowing with restraint, this open Italian GT represents everything that car design should aspire to.
Just one glimpse is enough to fill your head with Le Mépris cinematic glamour – in spite of Jean-Luc Godard having cast Jack Palance as the Spider-driving millionaire playboy, and Palance’s awkward angular intensity jarring with the film’s idyllic setting.
Talking of which… the Flaminia, no matter how great an effort is expended, just doesn’t tickle the same parts.
The lines, particularly that sloping rear deck and its frowning frontal aspect, are touched too heavily by the brush of transatlantic baroque.
This may satisfy the skewed Alfisti voices in one’s head, but these villainous enemies of impartiality shouldn’t be too complacent.
Something is about to startle their white cat and derail their smug plans for domination.
The Flaminia’s interior is in a different class to that of the Spider, suggesting that greater care and attention have been invested.
It owes less to 1960s sports car vinyl and more to resplendent ’50s Italian jewels such as MV Agusta’s CSS Super Sport Disco Volante.
The bright interior trim and unobtrusive instrumentation – plus the absence of a centre console and conventional transmission tunnel – all make the Flaminia far roomier, more stylish and classier than the Alfa.
Given the cars’ price differential when new, this should be expected – in 1962, the disparity between a Flaminia convertible and a 2600 Spider was £969.
Or to put it another way, you could have bought a Triumph TR4 with the difference and still have a wad of folding left over.
Although the Tipo 824-04 Flaminia grabbed the Aurelia B24’s baton, much had changed at the company in the wake of Vittorio Jano’s F1 adventure with the complicated and costly D50.
With the firm rescued from the financial flames by Giovanni Pesenti, Antonio Fessia took over Jano’s role as chief designer and set about creating a new V6 engine plus double-wishbone front suspension.
Sadly, Lancia ignored the D50 lesson and continued to spend too much on engineering quality and development to survive on its own.
Bad news for Lancia owners of the day, but good news for Lancia owners now.
Pop the bonnet and the Flaminia 2.5 Convertible certainly lacks the showmanship of the Alfa’s gleaming long-legged cam covers.
But then you notice the thermostatically controlled radiator shutters, the battery located low and ahead of the compact, all-alloy 60º V6 – itself mounted almost against the front bulkhead.
Drive is sent aft to a transaxle, which then apportions motion via a de Dion rear axle.
This mechanical sophistication is dressed by Touring using its alloy-panelled Superleggera body construction.
While the Alfa underwent relatively minor improvements during its life, Lancia’s drop-top enjoyed compulsive rapid-fire alterations.
After only 421 open 2.5s were built, the 3C Convertible 2.5 (246 built) was introduced in 1961 with triple Weber 35DCN carburettors.
That was replaced by 1963’s 3C Convertible 2.8 (180 built), which lasted until 1964.
Given such a background, I further suspect that things might not go quite according to personal taste.
Get behind the wheel of the 2600 Spider, however, and any concerns are quickly blown away.
The Spider’s reputation for dimensional largesse does not stand up to 21st-century scrutiny, but despite Alfa’s claim that ‘it is every inch a Gran Turismo with sports car characteristics’ it feels larger than it is.
This is due to the weight and location of that imperious engine as well as a degree of play in its steering.
Believed to have its origins in a 1940s Ford, the Gemmer steering box does have noticeable slop, which is a little unnerving given the Alfa’s laden bow.
Confidence is sparse until several furlongs have passed, particularly if, on turn-in, all you encounter is slackness that gives an unnerving impression of understeer.
But with hands, eyes, worm and sector all in sync, the Alfa’s merits come forth: the long, easy throw of the five-speed gearbox, plus brake retardation and pedal feel that would embarrass its wheeled offspring from the 1980s.
Then there’s that joyous engine – the last of its bloodline. It’s far quieter than its pre-war forebears, the later Giuseppe Busso V6 or its smaller four-cylinder kin, possibly due to the quiet conscientiousness of those triple twin-choke Solexes that mumble only on the overrun.
It imparts journeys with a silken double-cream melody – almost as if easy-listening maestro Piero Piccioni had a seven-bearing crankshaft and lived under the bonnet.
Sit back, select fourth and let the torque toil at 3000rpm, or you can make the Veglia tacho earn its keep by stretching for the red paint at 6250rpm.
Either way, the muscular ‘six’ bequeaths the Spider with a happy heart – and, as open GTs go, it is much more likeable than a Mercedes-Benz SL.
Such digression, however, is not why we are here.
Aboard this Flaminia, its lighter two-tone interior is more spacious and less simian than the Spider.
This ethereal sensation is amplified by control surfaces that are nimbler and a driving experience that is more vivace.
The V6 will obligingly lug you around in third gear without qualm, but to do so feels wasteful because it denies the opportunity of changing gear with what is the finest remote transaxle gearchange I have experienced.
Not only is it shorter, sharper and cleaner of throw than the Alfa’s, but when swiftly chopping from one ratio to the next, it could merrily humiliate some later villains with an inclination to graunch ’n’ grind.
The 117bhp, 2458cc ‘six’ is served by only a single twin-choke Solex yet it relishes high revs, singing then wailing at 4500rpm as the Jaeger rev counter heads for the thin redline at 5500rpm.
This demonstrative, soulful engine is as modern and uninhibited as the dignified Alfa is reserved, and makes it feel, well, ever so slightly old guard.
On roads such as these, it’s an honourable stalemate in terms of seat-of-the-pants performance assessment, body rigidity and cosseting ride – even when you consider the different methods of construction and that the Lancia, in a rare bout of rear suspension regression, sits on cart springs.
Regardless of the stats, both feel evenly matched and enjoyably quick, without triggering worries about little men in vans and speed-awareness re-education.
Yet in terms of steering feel and front-end response, the Flaminia easily pulls ahead.
Despite being of a similar design and hailing from the same company as that used in the Spider, the Lancia’s Gemmer worm and sector is as delicate and tactile as the wood-rimmed wheel that commands it.
Forget slop and straight-ahead numbness, this steering is so responsive, light and consistent from lock to lock that it proves to be an education.
Allied to better weight distribution and a higher polar moment of inertia, the Lancia’s eager reactions, crisp turn-in and predictability are a delight.
It certainly loses ground to the Alfa under braking, however. An officious servo hampers easy modulation and there is less overall stopping power, but through tight or flowing corners its better balance conspires to make it feel lighter than the Spider – even though the contrary is true.
Indeed, such is the experience that it stuns the inner Alfisti to silence, leaving behind bewilderment, shock and long minutes of numbness.
I still prefer the Spider’s lines, but I am the first to admit that a design garnished with awkwardness can – with greater familiarity – blossom, be viewed anew and appreciated.
Dynamically, no such excuses need to be made for the Lancia – a gran turismo that goes beyond its job title and gets uncomfortably close to some audacious machines that dare label themselves ‘sports cars’.
Relaxed enjoyment of the ‘sun in your face, wind in your hair’ variety recedes as confidence in the Flaminia’s ability flourishes, allowing a greater indulgence of that gearchange and the precocious musicality of that sonorous V6.
The 2600 Spider would doubtless be a wonderfully unfussed and enjoyable way to cruise down to the Amalfi Coast; the Lancia would probably take longer, its driver having surrendered to the temptation to take the long, wriggly way around.
It is an inescapable truth that, from the driver’s seat, the Flaminia looks, feels and sounds more special than the Alfa.
Such is its cache of talents and delicate feedback that it is eligible for membership of an exclusive club that includes the Lotus Elan, AC Ace, Porsche 356 and, yes, a fair few flavours of four-cylinder Alfa.
Fellow Alfa fans, mi dispiace.
Images Tony Baker
Feature originally published in the September 2015 issue of Classic & Sports Car
Lancia Flaminia 2.5
- Sold/no built 1960-’61/421 (convertible)
- Construction steel chassis, Superleggera alloy bodywork
- Engine all-alloy, sohc-per-bank 2458cc V6, single Solex 40 PAAI carburettor
- Max power 117bhp @ 5100rpm
- Max torque 137lb ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission four-speed all-synchromesh manual transaxle, driving rear wheels
- Suspension: front independent by double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear de Dion axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, Panhard rod; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering worm and sector
- Brakes discs with servo
- Length 14ft 9¼in (4500mm)
- Width 5ft 5¼in (1660mm)
- Height 4ft 3¼in (1300mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 3¼in (2520mm)
- Weight 3086lb (1400kg)
- 0-60mph 13.6 secs
- Top speed 106mph
- Mpg 18-25
- Price new £3775 (1962 3C 2.5)
Alfa Romeo 2600 Spider
- Sold/number built 1962-’65/2257
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc 2584cc ‘six’, triple Solex 44 PHH carburettors
- Max power 145bhp @ 5900rpm
- Max torque 156lb ft @ 4000rpm
- Transmission five-speed all-synchromesh manual, driving rear wheels
- Suspension: front independent by double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear live axle, lower radius arms, triangular axle locator; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering worm and sector
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 14ft 4in (4369mm)
- Width 5ft 5in (1651mm)
- Height 4ft 6in (1380mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 2in (2489mm)
- Weight 2530lb (1147kg)
- 0-60mph 9.2 secs
- Top speed 124mph
- Mpg 18-26
- Price new £2806 (1962)